Besieged: School Boards and the Future of Education Politics
reviewed by Eliot Larson - 2006
Title: Besieged: School Boards and the Future of Education Politics
Author(s): William G. Howell, Editor
Publisher: Brookings Institution, Washington D.C.
ISBN: 0815736835, Pages: 356, Year: 2005
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As a doctoral student twenty-five years ago, I wrote my dissertation about the recorded verbal interactions among participants at school board meetings from a management perspective. During the course of that investigation, I reviewed the current research about school boards. I found information about the history of school boards, descriptive studies about the socio-economic status of school board members, and many studies that prescribed the appropriate role for school boards in governing the local school district. I found no research at that time that specifically examined what school boards actually do as the agency empowered by the state to run our local school systems. One of the reasons I enjoyed reading Besieged is precisely because it examines this.
Indeed, Besieged is an apt title for this collection of essays based on research about school boards done by leading scholars. We are led through an examination of the various expectations and pressures that are exerted on school boards as they attempt to govern local school systems. Each author offers us fresh insights and perspectives into issues such as the tension between centralized and decentralized control of school districts, the impact of mayoral takeovers of school systems, the challenges presented to local school boards presented by the charter school movement, accountability of school board members to district voters for the performance of students on achievement tests, the effect of teachers unions on local school board politics, and what school boards can actually accomplish in running school systems. At the beginning of each chapter, authors provide us with an update of the latest research related to the topic, offer additional insights based on their own research, and then discuss their findings, laying the groundwork for further research.
I believe this book will appeal to academics and researchers, but not practitioners because of the complexity of the research models and the statistical analyses that are reported. For example, Christopher Berry considers the question of school consolidation, student outcomes, and whether size matters. Berry admits that while it is not possible to test the effects of consolidation on conventional achievement such as standardized test scores, he creates a very elaborate model that somehow relates such effects of consolidation to the returns to education in the labor market using the Public-Use Micro-Sample (PUMS) of the U.S. Census (p. 66). I am not certain how relating earnings is a valid measure of student achievement, but Berry does conclude that increasing school size is associated with a decline in a return on investment, and that class size does matter (p. 70).
Some of the more interesting ideas I was drawn to include Terry Moes discussion about the impact of teacher unions on local school board elections. Intuitively. one would guess that unions have a substantial impact on such elections, but Moes research suggests it is more complicated than that. It seems that there are four conditions that need to be taken into account in order to understand the nature of district politics and union power. They include the size of the union, political pluralism, political culture, and incumbency (p. 259). In smaller districts, unions seem to play little or no role as union membership is relatively small. As districts increase in size, however, the unions become similarly larger and more politically capable as organizations, (p. 261). However, they also compete with a variety of other, often conflicting values and forces. Moe notes that when a non-incumbent takes office, their new jobs require that they work with unions across the collective bargaining table and see first-hand how the interests of the union and teachers can often conflict with the interests of students and the district (p. 277).
On the subject of school board elections, Frederick Hess and David Leal find in their study that contrary to the popular belief that school board elections have become expensive and heavily professional (p. 229), most elections involve minimal campaign spending, and few board members received even a quarter of their campaign funds from teachers unions or businesses. Neither religious organizations nor race-based groups hold much influence on school board elections or decisions (p. 249). In their respective essays, Christopher Berry and William Howell analyze voting patterns in South Carolina to see whether or not voters actually held school board members accountable for student learning. These authors allowed for the fact that school boards engage in many activities that do not directly relate to student achievement such as negotiating contracts, purchasing property, and developing budgets. However, what they found was that incumbents were significantly less likely to seek reelection when student test scores declined; when incumbents did run they were far more likely to face a challenger; and those who ran in competitive elections received a significantly smaller share of the vote when test scores had fallen (p. 163).
As a principal for the last twenty-five years and an observer of both effective and dysfunctional school boards, I found that some of the research in Besieged resonated with some of my experiences and raised questions about the capacity of a local board of education to effectively govern a school system in this age of heightened accountability with NCLB. Luis Ricardo Fraga and others looked at the issue of desegregation and school board politics and how limited even a court order is to restrict the power of a school board to govern as they see fit. Specifically, they studied the impact of a court-ordered consent decree to desegregate the San Francisco Unified School District, and what they found was that by exercising their powers to select a superintendent, the board was able thwart the implementation of this decree to address equity issues affecting students in the district (p. 125). Simply put, school board politics trumped student achievement.
I believe that Besieged makes an important contribution to our understanding of how school boards actually operate and how they might function better. Howell points out in his introduction that none of the contributors to Besieged found much evidence that school boards are especially innovative or that they search for creative policies that will immediately serve the needs of students. Ironically, school boards attempt to actively maintain the status quo, (p. 21). Unfortunately, such a stance is no longer good enough as it represents a significant challenge for superintendents to overcome. While the pressures and expectations may be growing upon school boards, these pressures pale in comparison to what students, teachers, and principals deal with every day trying to measure up to NCLB. Action research that would help to reconceptualize the role of the school board so that it is more strategically aligned with and accountable for promoting student achievement would help to transform our schools.